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Adetoun Küppers-Adebisi/Michael Küppers-Adebisi: Diaspora ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ – New pan-African images out of Germany

In the critical reading of their exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’, Adetoun Küppers-Adebisi and Michael Küppers-Adebisi deconstruct German colonial genocide in Africa and contemporary, neo-colonial racism against people of African descent in Germany. The acknowledgement of contemporary visual knowledge management strategies from a Black German and African Diaspora perspective shows how black and white disparities can be overcome by art techniques of discursive intervention that re-empower African communities and the images that exist about them.

Picture: Collage of 5 Black & White Mixed Media Photographs 86 X 161 cm © AFROTAK TV cyberNomads 2011

The exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ in the Afrika Museum Germany located in the so-called ‘African Quarter’ in Berlin-Wedding premiers digitally produced documentary masterpieces of survival created by the Black German and the African Diaspora in Germany. The name African Quarter itself is a relict of the colonial practices up to date neglected by a German mainstream psyche not coming to terms with its past. Many street names in Berlin and Germany still praise white German male heroes who participated in the historic raping of Africa under colonial German rule. Contemporary racism structurally perpetuates discrimination against people of African descent in the city’s architectural practice and discourse (Mohrenstrasse – Negro Street). The documentary photographs reviewed in this article infuse their discursive potential of visual intervention with street-art strategies. The German practice of denial of racism against people of African descent is countered by a history-conscious new realism that renders visual documentary media for anti-racist, gender-mainstreamed and post-colonial cultural paradigm change. In 2002 Okwui Enwezor became the first African to be appointed curator for an internationally acclaimed art forum in Germany: Documenta. In the year 2010 the House of the Cultures of the World, a major German culture institution put on the Berlin Documentary Forum to interrogate the role of documentary strategies in contemporary art. Enwezor, again involved as curator, this time focused on the specific workings of cultural reality-construction based on signs, images and symbols. One of the questions asked was on how art can step beyond the borders of self-referential artistic systems into the realm of social reality.

Mixed-Media strategies of documentary photography
Mixed Media 86 X 161 cm Black & White. Members of the Namibian delegation on the steps of the Berlin clinic Charité during memorial ceremony for victims of German genocide © AFROTAK TV cyberNomads 2011

The exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ visually re-negotiates the historic event of September 2011 when Germany finally returned what had been stolen over 100 years ago. The human remains of the victims of the German genocide in Namibia were handed over to the victims’ descendants. Skulls reduced to exotic, medical artifacts and held captive by racist scientists and their medical studies to prove the moral and ethical inferiority of the victims. And as they failed to do so these skulls have been stored away in the cellar archives of the Charité. The documentary photographs in the exhibition are primarily empowered by a contemporary and globalised dialogue and inspired by the higher mobility of non-Eurocentric perspectives on representation. The mainstream postulate of a discursive break in the way female and male people of African descent have been treated in the Kaiserreich, Republic of Weimar, Nazi-Germany, post-Nazi East and West Germany, as well as in contemporary post-re-unification Germany, is effectively bridged from the Afro-German, Afropean and African perspectives. 

The major archives and written discourses of Africa in Timbuktu and Alexandria have been mainly destroyed. But new multimedia-based diaspora-knowledge-databanks are growing as part of the new lingua franca visual movement in Africa, in Afro-Europe and the African diasporas of the Americas. Global access to African images and narrations spread connected with music, dance and video of post-modern global culture. The Jewish diaspora in Germany already has integrated the Nazi attack on their people into visual and cultural discourses, and even into state-financed memorials for the Shoah victims. In December 1970 the German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down in front of the Polish memorial in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. Now the history behind the German colonial involvement enters into the mainstream as well. Commander-in-chief von Trotha ordered the first German genocide in Namibia and killed approximately 60,000 children, women and men. The exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ documents the 2011 handing over of heads of the victims. 

Namibia is still waiting for that same official excuse from the German government. The exhibition tells the story of how female and male Namibians come to claim the humanity of their ancestors as well as their own. The Namibians travel continents to pay tribute to their anti-colonial resistance fighters. They come to re-integrate the stolen heads and return the souls to their home country to at last bring peace to the spirit of their people. They wear the traditional dresses of their foremothers and the military outfits of their forefathers, people that Germany claimed as subjects. Their descendants parade in front of the Charité clinic in Berlin with strength and an almost surreal pride. The leaders of the Herero and Nama people kneel down on the front steps of the Charité in respect to their ancestors, including a minister and 60 representatives. The photographs correct stereotypes of Africans representation in the visual German mainstream. The documentary strategy goes beyond pure re-production or even re-construction of reality. The images of the Namibian delegation flavor a sense of post-real as they arrive to replace the absence of historical perspectives in the white German Africa-imagination. Real in these photographs has been double-charged by textual comments digitally integrated into the images. These inscriptions direct the attention of the viewer to the visual construction of cultural reality-discourses. Signifier, signified and cultural subtexts are re-defined as part of a cultural discursive history. They are viral like graffiti tags on urban walls. In cloud-computing the speed of information depends on combined capacities. Meaning of visual communication gathers speed as part of an overall national knowledge management system through recourse to the specific cultural and historic backgrounds. In this exhibition it connects to racism and genocide.

In 2004 the UNESCO honoured the May Ayim Award – the 1st Black German International Literature Award as German Project for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. In 2011 finally the exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ exposes the killing of a people for standing up against Germany exploiting African resources. There were German concentration camps in Africa way before the Nazis installed them in Europe. Up to date white Germany has not incorporated these stories into its canons of knowledge. Germany pays development-aid instead. Reconnecting the roots of contemporary racism to a colonial history the exhibition addresses clinical aphasia in the German culture. 

Silence of death
Mixed Media 86 X 161 cm Black & White. Members of the Namibian Delegation in a Church in Berlin attending a Memorial Service for the victims © AFROTAK TV cyberNomads 2011

No. These heads have seldom squinted against the sun. More than one century long they did not. Twenty of them have now been released into freedom by the Charité in Berlin. Twenty out of approximately 6,000 throughout Germany, as has been estimated by some experts. Those finally released have not even been given proper coffins. The documentary photographs of the exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ confront the visitors with metaphors of neutrally grey and square cardboard boxes of about 20 times 20 centimetres representing nameless pain. They have been marked with signs and numbers. An eerie silent atmosphere rules in the images of caged heads who have been victimized by white German scientists. 

Incorporating the social sciences’ input of cultural criticism the exhibition strategically approaches German knowledge archives of denial with a visual guerilla attack. The images are inspired by the more than 25 year struggle of Afro-German organizations like Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) and the African Women´s Organization (ADEFRA) teaming up with African diaspora communities fighting contemporary racism in Germany. These images are meant to assist the general German psyche. To undergo a sustainable healing process as the post-colonial tradition meets its neo-colonial after-images inflicting psychological as well as physical hurt of victims in Germany and on the African continent. The strategy of ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ incorporates scientific knowledge accumulation as extension of political lobbying. The first stage in understanding the exhibition’s impact is to suspend judgment on the singular photograph until overall impact of the project’s content is accessed. Then the formally signified successfully emancipates into being the signifier. 

Visually un-penetrable spaces protect the heads from nosy glances. But the boxes also hide the real horror. There are eleven card box cartons on one side and seven on the other. They represent eleven Herero and seven Nama victims. Pars Pro Toto. The silence is pregnant with the afterglow of one hundred years imprisonment in German archives. The boxes are indexed with alpha-numerical codes instead of names. The focus in the photographs is a little off. One of the heads of each group is presented in a 60 times 20 centimetres transparent Plexiglas box. The photographs make the hollow eyes of the skulls in boxes seem to look into the eyes of the on-lookers. There is no memorial in Germany for the victims of the genocide.

An arrival in the presence and cultural paradign changes
Mixed Media 86 X 161 cm Black & White. Members of Namibian Delegation in anatomical theatre of the Berlin Charité clinic at handing over ceremony of heads of victims of genocide © AFROTAK TV cyberNomads 2011

The exhibition documents the complexities of the encounter of the African victims with the white German public initiated by the combined forces of activists from the white civil society together with the German African diaspora. The images presented in the exhibition have been taken within one week in 2011. ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ starts with the press conference organized by a committee composed of African diaspora, Afro-Germans and white German activists. It covers the public discussion panel organised in cooperation with and at the House of the Cultures of the World and ends with the handing over of the Namibian human remains at the anatomical theatre of the Charité.

There were but a few visual moments available to the public eye before, revealing the specific German way of dealing with Africa and they came from a mediated white perspective or from a perspective of the diaspora not being part of the German experience. Examples are the black and white photographs of around 1908 of white German military personnel from a white German perspective. Surviving Namibian women had been forced to first boil the bodies of their murdered people and then to scrape the flesh of the bones as preparation for the shipment to Germany. The white German males are smoking cigarettes and smile straight into the camera while packing Namibians skulls from piles into coffin-like wooden boxes.

Images of concentration camps taken around 1945 by US-American liberation forces show Afro-German and African diaspora victims of the Nazi Holocaust. 

Modern semiotic theories look for meaning not in the individual signs, but in their context and the framework of potential meanings that can be applied. Both in colonial- and in Nazi-Germany exotic subtexts were constructed through exhibiting Africans as objects in the Völkerschauen (people shows). In ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ the change in perspective is two fold. It becomes visible as a democratic act of self-emancipation in the unity of the Africans in Germany who mirror themselves in the fate of their Namibian brothers and sisters. Illustrating the mainstream media coverage, images of images are also part of the exhibition. A Berlin daily paper subtitled the photograph of an Afro-German woman present at the event with ‘A Namibian Woman’. White media here is not differentiating between the members of the Namibian delegation and the Berlin residents of Namibian, Eritrean, Cameroonian, Nigerian, South African, Jamaican, African American, and Afro German or of Afro-European descent. Identity here is constructed through colour. They are black so they must be Namibian and non-German.

The present exhibition deconstructs the propagandistic nature of the representation of Africans. Where contemporary German zoos and commercial productions still take recourse to folkloristic and racist tradition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ will disappoint this hunger for exotic sensations. The documentary photographs do not focus on the spectacular. They focus on the normality of bodiless African heads amongst white and black audience and activists, Charité representatives and administrators and also local, national and international media as professional image producers. 

Only a few white people-of-colour can be found in these documentary photographs. In the alliance against discrimination and xenophobia, the discourse on racism in Germany has been high-jacked by white people-of-colour. The images by contextualising the Namibian genocide also discredit the attempt to strip racism of the historic dimension and to level its victims into one line with so called anti-Muslim discrimination cases against white people-of-colour based on religion (religious racism) or so called racism against the old (Altersrassismus). 

The curators have chosen small black and white mixed-media formats of 86 times 161 centimetres to present powerful compositions and symbolism to make their points. It is exactly the curious explosive silence and disciplined self-denial that highlights the images’ truly immodest importance. The images are concerned with a historic perspective and refer all the way back to the starting point of modernity when white people initiated a racist image-system based on cultural dis-representation to ethically justify their economic exploitation of the non-white other. Science, medicine and art were the media used to re-negotiate the economic hierarchies. So modernity is visually dismantled as rhetorical cover-up operation to hide a cultural ‘desert storm’ and propaganda attack on people of African descent. 

Documentary photography in times of social media 
Mixed media 86 X 161 cm Black & White. Members of Black German and African Diaspora in anatomical theatre of the Berlin Charité clinic at handing over ceremony of heads of victims of genocide © AFROTAK TV cyberNomads 2011

The heightened speed of information distribution on the internet, through digital media productions and social media networks has attributed them with a life and dynamics of their own. It has also led to new possibilities of artworks in the times of their digital reproduction. The images of the exhibition show a black German woman being framed by white male press charging her with over-dimensional cameras from the left. The Afro-German with Nigerian roots is part of a group of the African Diaspora Germany. Just like her they are holding up signs that read Entschuldigung Sofort (Apologise Immediately) and Reparationen (Reparations). The scene reminds of a hero from pop-culture being stalked by the press. This kind of photograph stands at the abyss of what generally is accepted as documentary image. Documentary images are not meant to manipulate the recipient. Truth has to be self-evident. The black woman holds up a camera that is directed at the state secretary. She is not only object but also an independent image-producer of her own. 

The photographs of the exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ have been inspired by the musical strategy of sampling and remixing. The digital retouch of the artist as basquaian DJ changes established historical and linear flows. The integration of text into the architecture of contemporary documentary works reloads the matrix of meaning and challenges mono-cultural reality construction by defining specific contexts. The inclusion of the social and philosophical dynamics of the production process takes documentary photography beyond the traditional limits of Eurocentric definitions of semiotics and its neo-colonial domination on global discourse and local meaning. 

This can also be observed in the photographs of the German state secretary for the ministry of foreign affairs. Mrs Cornelia Pieper in her speech referred to the event as of ‘high symbolic value’. With insensitivity regarding the context of her own vocabulary she said it was the reminder of a ‘dark and painful chapter’ full of ‘bloody suppression, savagery, forced labour’ and ‘atrocities’. She consented that its ‘inhuman racism’ would be reflected in discursive categories degrading the victims as ‘research material’. But instead of asking for forgiveness she only invited to reconciliation and the one word she did not say was: genocide! Some initiatives and individuals booed at Pieper for not speaking out an official apology. Pieper let this historic opportunity go by unused, in line with the policy of the German government. The photographs show her leaving through the backdoor and causing a diplomatic éclat because of not listening to Minister Kazenambo and to the representatives of the Herero and the Nama people. Instead a digital in-script is part of some photographs reading: Zeugen des deutschen Völkermordes (Witnesses of German Genocide). Again the context is re-defined from local perspective.

Already in 2010 another strategy contextualising the German cultural landscape with a global perspective was practised in the major Berlin art-exhibition ‘Who knows tomorrow’ co-curated by Chika Okeke-Agulu. The exhibition focused on post-colonial perspectives by international artists in the 125th year anniversary of the Berlin Africa Conference. These works, nonetheless, were read as quotations from a global and thus abstract perspective. The sculptures by Pascale Marthine Tayou of oversized African people looking over and into the city from the plateau at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) temporarily changed the architecture of Berlin. In ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ the documentary images are also part of a globalised discourse but they are culturally charged by an insider diaspora perspective and their mnemonic performance reminds of a Trojan virus within digital architectures and designed to change the host.

The exhibition deals with the coming to terms with the effect of 60,000 black Namibians having been murdered by white Germans. The perspective of the photographs also includes the larger picture. There have been communities of Africans from the German colonies and their black German descendants in Berlin and other parts of Germany since around 1900. There has been racist propaganda against the descendants of the French black Rhineland troops. They are part of German society ever since and they have been victims of the Nazis. Despite their West German citizenship about 3,000 descendants of the African-American troops have been taken away from their German mothers and given away for adoption in the USA. Others have been sterilised. About 400 children from Mozambique growing up in East Germany were ‘sent back’ to an African culture they did not know as part of the collateral damage of German so called re-unification. Apartheid has not only happened in South Africa. A civil rights movement for the rights of black people is not necessary in the USA only. Passport laws are still enacted even in today’s Germany. 

Thus the exhibition is important in negotiating the genocide within its historical frame. Especially in a time that witnesses the neo-Nazi terror and its victims among the white people-of-colour German-Turkish and Greek families who suffered as they have been attacked after German re-unification. The first victim of post-re-unification racist terror in 1990 against black Germans and the African diaspora was Amadeu Antonio Kiowa. He came from Angola and was one of the East German so-called contract workers. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, structural disadvantages in the workforce and housing, racial profiling and physical violence against migrants and asylum seekers are to stay the ‘unknown’ part of German society as long as a re-processing of the historic dimension does not account for the perspective of victims like Oury Jalloh who in 2005 burnt alive in a German prison cell. 

The second reason why the exhibition is an important contribution is because it combines the threads of documentary photography with knowledge management strategies show-casing how the borders in-between art and social reality can be re-arranged in favour of new insights and truths. It is this knowledge that the photographs of ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ communicate to a broader public. By the way, more than 40,000 people have been waiting at the airport in Namibia for the return of the delegation to receive the human remains of their ancestors with tears of joy and pain. An estimate of 70 per cent of the country supposedly is in the hands of white Namibians, mainly the descendants of white Germans from colonial times.

In the beginning this text referred to Okwui Enwezor who by now has been named director to the major Munich museum Haus der Kunst (House of the Arts). He also has again expanded the frame of new possible perspectives with an exhibition on the art of the Nazis.

The Berlin exhibition ‘Faces of the African Renaisance’ showed until the end of February 2012, the ending of Black History Month in Germany. Multimedia parts of the exhibition can still be accessed online via: AFROTAK.com.

Adetoun Küppers-Adebisi - the Lagos born publisher and editor is a German economical and production engineer and founder and director of the Black German Media, Culture and Education Archive called AFROTAK TV cyberNomads. She presently is preparing her trans-disciplinary PHD on Gender Studies and Neo-Colonial Waste Management Discourses in-between Germany and Nigeria.

Michael Küppers-Adebisi is an Afro-German author, publisher, filmmaker Multi-Media-Artist and Social Media Activist. The cultural manager is co-founder of the Afro-German Media Platform AFROTAK TV cyberNomads and presently holds a fellowship of the North Rhine Westphalia State Theatre writing an interactive play on postcolonial Germany with the working title The Reichstag/ Kafka in the Mix.

Please send comments to editor(at)pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org 

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